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Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67

 

Rock ’n’ Roll Highway 67 is a segment of U.S. Highway 67 running approximately 111 miles through Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph, and Clay counties in northeastern Arkansas, with a portion in Miller County in southwestern Arkansas. Its name is derived from the rockabilly music performed at nightclubs and other venues located on the highway by legendary progenitors of the genre. The designation by Act 497 of the Eighty-seventh Arkansas General Assembly in 2009 has since spawned music festivals, museum exhibits, and plaques in communities situated along the highway.

The term “rockabilly”—a portmanteau of “rock ’n’ roll” and “hillbilly”—is defined as a mixture of blues, country and western, and rhythm and blues music that saw its biggest popularity beginning in the post–World War II era and lasting until around the time of the so-called British Invasion of the early 1960s. Original rockabilly artists included Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis, along with noted Arkansans Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Sonny Burgess, and Billy Lee Riley. These same musicians are cited as influences by later musical legends—ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan—who credit rockabilly as an inspiration for their own distinctive styles of music. Establishments located on U.S. 67 that hosted these acts included Bob King’s King of Clubs in Swifton (Jackson County), the Silver Moon Club in Newport (Jackson County), and the rooftop of the Skylark Drive-In Theater in Pocahontas (Randolph County). Some were still hosting live music as recently as 2010.

The idea to honor the road originated in 2005 with noted Pocahontas musician Gary Gazaway (who has performed and recorded with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker, and Phish). As a lifelong resident of the area, Gazaway had long recognized the significance of the highway as a musical artery. He suggested the idea to director of the Arkansas Folklife Program at Arkansas State University (ASU) Michael Luster and to music historian Stephen Koch, co-founder and host of the radio program Arkansongs. All three concluded that it was a worthy project and agreed that the highway should be called the “Rockabilly Highway.” Gazaway advanced his idea for the designation during the three-week Pocahontas Sesquicentennial celebration in 2006—the highlight of which was a performance by Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess.

The original idea was for the highway to run from Bald Knob (White County) to the Missouri state line north of Corning (Clay County). A committee was formed that included representatives from the counties through which the highway would pass, as well as others such as Michael Luster of ASU, state representative J. R. Rogers of Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County), and Little Rock (Pulaski County) author Marvin Schwartz, the committee’s director.

The committee was soon divided over the name. Gazaway and the historians favored the “Rockabilly Highway” designation, while the politicians and civic boosters did not want any association with the perceived pejorative term “hillbilly,” proposing instead the name “Rock ’n’ Roll Highway 67.” The committee ultimately voted 8–5 in favor of naming it Rock ’n’ Roll Highway 67. Gazaway disagreed with the decision, saying that the name dishonors the historical aspect of the road: “Rockabilly was the kind of music they played there,” he said. “The hillbilly culture is what made the music. To call it anything else is to go against the historical aspect of it.” Giving a nod to the naming controversy, the legislation reads, “While academics and historians have indicated that a change in the name of this music to ‘rockabilly’ should be made, everyone who lived, breathed, and rocked during this time called the music rock ’n’ roll.”

After Governor Mike Beebe signed legislation for the highway designation on March 20, 2009, there was growing effort to capitalize on the designation by civic boosters eager to attract tourists to their communities. For example, Walnut Ridge—where the rockabilly-influenced Beatles stopped briefly at the municipal airport in 1964 en route to a vacation destination in Missouri—started a Beatles-themed music festival called Beatles at the Ridge (tag line: “Where Abbey Road Meets the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway!), erected a life-sized sculpture depicting the Beatles from the cover of their landmark album Abbey Road, and created the Walnut Ridge Guitar Walk—a colored concrete walkway in the shape of an Epiphone Casino electric guitar popular with musicians of the era. Also, highway signs reading ROCK ’N’ ROLL HIGHWAY 67 can be seen lining the route.

In October 2011, signs were dedicated marking a portion of Highway 67 through Texarkana (Miller County) as part of the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway. Early rock and roll performers sometimes played at Arkansas Municipal Auditorium when they traveled through Texarkana on Highway 67.

For additional information:
Act 497 of 2009. http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2009/R/Acts/Act497.pdf (accessed August 26, 2012).

DeMillo, Andrew. “Arkansas Hopes ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Highway’ Will Boost Tourism.”USA Today, March 24, 2009. Online at http://www.usatoday.com/travel/destinations/2009-03-24-arkansas-rock-n-roll-highway_N.htm (accessed August 26, 2012).

Heard, Kenneth. “Group Hoping to Make U.S. 67 A Rocking Road.”Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 28, 2007, pp. 1B, 8B.

———. “Legendary Musicians Stepped Out on U.S. 67.”Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 13, 2008, p. 17B.

———. “Rock ’N’ Roll Highway 67.”Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 13, 2009, pp. 1A, 2A.

———. “Rock ’N’ ROLL Highway.”Arkansas Life (May 2012): 44–45.

———. “U.S. 67 Gets Rock ’N’ Roll Christening.”Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 25, 2008, pp. 1B, 5B.

Rock 67. http://www.rock67.com/ (accessed August 26, 2012).

Keith Merckx
“Arkansongs”

Last Updated 9/18/2013

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